Cops around here have developed a nasty habit: bogarting joints. That is, they illegally confiscate medical marijuana, get dragged into court for violating state law, lollygag in chambers for years, and have the local verdict kicked up to appellate court, where they ultimately lose and have to give the Devil's weed back, seeing as how state law protects legitimate medical marijuana patients like the ones cops around here keep busting. (Knit beanies off to Newport Beach artist michaelm for having designed the accompanying logo.)
Who knows? In a state where many lawmakers are giddy about a long-delayed budget that includes only a $1 billion deficit, taxpayers will eventually grow weary of our local coppers' blatant waste of their dollars and resources, not to mention the crassness of it all. The latest incident happened in Huntington Beach, where police this week had to give back to 52-year-old trade show decorator Jim Spray the four ounces of pot and “chunk of hash” he had a doctor's note to possess for pain from a herniated disc. The HBPD already knew the drill; under court order in April they returned Dave Lucas' 30 grams of higher-end purple urkel and smoking pipes they'd ripped off in 2007.
Don't assume Surf City has the only blue crew ignoring the law, stealing people's medicine and then being forced by court decree to cough up the grass, however.
After the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court ruling that supported Felix Kha's right to possess medicinal cannabis, Garden Grove Police in November 2007 returned eight grams of marijuana it seized during a traffic stop two years before.
A month after Kha got back the weed he'd originally obtained from a legitimate medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, the same San Francisco-based Appeals Court overturned the conviction of phlebotomist Christopher Chakos, who was arrested near his Rancho Santa Margarita medical office three years earlier after Orange County Sheriff's deputies performing a traffic stop found seven grams of marijuana in his car along with a doctor's note recommending pot for his pain and depression.
The Chakos' case is a perfect illustration of how local cops cloud medical marijuana laws, clog up the courts and ultimately have it all blow up in their faces. They searched the medical marijuana patient's apartment and found more pot but combined with what was in the car it totaled less than the eight ounces patients can possess under state law. Prosecutors still won a conviction thanks to the “expert” testimony of Deputy Christopher Cormier, who concluded Chakos must be a dealer because the apartment search turned up a scale.
But Cormier had to acknowledge in court that none of his hundreds of drug investigations involved a medical marijuana patient with a doctor's note. Because such patients must strictly comply with the eight-ounce state limit, many possess scales to measure their legal medicine lest they face the wrath of meddling cops. Thus, justices found that veteran narcotics investigator Cormier's unfamiliarity with medical marijuana cases made him unqualified as an expert witness. “The record fails to show that Deputy Cormier is any more familiar than the average layperson or the members of this court with the patterns of lawful possession for medicinal use,” Presiding Justice David Sills said in the 3-0 ruling.
Stupidity is not what drives local law enforcement, at least not when it comes to medical marijuana. Besides seizing cannabis, they callously seize on the perceived ambiguities in having federal law, which maintains marijuana is illegal to possess under any circumstances, conflict with state law, which says it's legal for some medical patients to smoke pot. For instance, Huntington Beach Police interpret California's landmark Compassionate Use Act as protecting medical marijuana recipients from prosecution but not arrest. Um … yeah.
The Weekly's Nick Schou brilliantly illustrated Orange County law enforcement's purposeful blurring of the law in his May 2007 cover story, “Dude, Where's My Pot?” Medical marijuana advocates can also point to a study of statewide arrest records that show of nearly 800 encounters with local or state police during a period of more than two years, 90 percent of patients had their pot seized regardless of any probable cause. Such seizures are “rampant” in 53 of California's 58 counties, found the report by the Berkeley-based Americans for Safe Access.
Cops willingly push this confusion up the planks of the state legal system. As a result, California judges are split on whether to return confiscated marijuana to patients who prove in court they obtained it legally. Some order the cannabis be given back to its rightful owner, while others claim they do not have the authority to do so. Authors Richard Glen Boire and Kevin Feeney write in Medical Marijuana Law (Ronin Publishing, 2007) that this is bogus reasoning. Since patients must re-assert in court that marijuana is their medicine, they must seek its return, as a diabetic would confiscated needles and insulin. To do otherwise would diminish patient rights.
Think about the many times California sheriffs, police chiefs and cops on the streets have bitched about trial lawyers and activist judges making their lives and ours more difficult by allowing criminals to go free. And yet, when it comes to medical marijuana patients and the clearly stated state law, they are more than willing to arrest, confiscate and let the courts sort it out.
Late last month, state Attorney General Jerry Brown tried to clean up the mess once and for all, developing guidelines for the first time since the Compassionate Use Act's 1996 passage. The legality of medical marijuana dispensaries to operate as nonprofit cooperatives or collectives was upheld, and cops were prohibited from taking marijuana from patients or charging them if they carried less than 8 ounces. Huntington Beach city officials reacted by saying that changes nothing in Surf City, claiming they already follow the guidelines ex-Governor Moonbeam beamed down to City Hall. Um … yeah.
Events on the ground indicate otherwise. Ten months before Brown issued the guidelines further legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries, Huntington Beach had already banned them within city limits, despite the fact that the city supported them two years before, none had opened in the ensuing months and no one had filed for a license to open one as the ban was pending before the council.
Incidentally, Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth W. Small, who gave a Reefer Madnessesque slide presentation showing all the dangers of legal medical marijuana dispensaries before he got all but two council members to support the ban, said something curious at that November 2007 City Council meeting. Acknowledging that the closest dispensary was in Los Angeles, where Kha had to schlep to to get his medicine, Small said Huntington Beach residents could still cultivate marijuana for their own medicinal purposes. Which brings us back to Jim Spray. Besides the three-year-old pot and hash, Huntington Beach Police were ordered by the 4th District Court of Appeal and Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris to return Spray's pot-growing equipment. Only they couldn't give it all back since Huntington Beach Police had destroyed much of the growing equipment that Huntington Beach's police chief apparently endorses!
As Spray contemplates returning to court to get the city to come up with the equipment cops smashed, perhaps compassionate, budget-conscious taxpayers can send Chief Small a list of competitively priced growing equipment he can buy with his own department's budget to make things right with Mr. Spray. That's Kenneth W. Small, 2000 Main St., Huntington Beach, California 92648 (714) 960-8811.
Helping Spray retrieve the property Huntington Beach cops did not destroy was Marvin Chavez Sr., the Orange County medical marijuana advocate, 1999 OC Weekly Man of the Year and judicial martyr who was imprisoned years ago for giving medicinal cannabis to sick people. Chavez told the Register's Cindy Carcamo, “Do you know how much of a pleasure it is to take medicine from the department? It's such a victory.”
Given the amount of pot going out HBPD doors lately, perhaps the City Council should cite Small for illegally operating a medical marijuana dispensary within city limits. Oh, well, celebrate while you can, Marvin. Anyone smell bacon?
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.